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What’s mine is yours (but not this)

June 25, 2010

There’s one big problem with being a novice poet among novice poets. The published ones, the ones who have made it, have copyright laws and literary agents and editors; essentially a team of people to defend the originality of their work. If I read a poem in a collection or anthology, it may spark off a few ideas in my head, but if so, it’ll happen in a quiet way that’s barely perceptible. The minute I get the sense that I’ve been directly inspired by a published poem, the PLAGIARISM alarm goes off and the poem I might potentially write either goes in the dustbin or is rethought to the extent that it’s unrecognisable.

This problem is different when you’re dealing with your unpublished peers. When you’re the First Reader of someone else’s drafts, it’s only natural that a certain amount of influence will seep in. Regularly reading and commenting on another’s work will eventually have an effect on what you produce yourself — but the question is, to what extent is this acceptable?

Faced with this question, I begin to understand why some writers are so precious about their work and never let anyone see it. I still think they’re wrong, but I get it. It’s easy to get paranoid when you put your ideas out there, as there is always the possibility that they’ll get nicked.

Like most problems, I think the best solution here is opening a dialogue. Once you get the feeling that you’re writing in someone else’s comfort zone, or worse, encroaching on their territory, the best thing may be to talk it out. It’s really important for my growth as a writer to step outside the boxes I set up for myself, get out of my comfort zone and do things differently. If I have to borrow someone else’s courage to achieve that, then I don’t see why that should be an issue. Of course, if another poet felt that I was leeching off their ideas or stepping on their toes, I would trash the offending draft and work it into something sufficiently different.

Clearly there’s a limit to this, too. ‘Borrowing’ lines or phrases from another’s work is still plagiarism, however you look at it, and that’s not cool. The kind of influence I’m talking about is a purely intellectual one, in which someone else’s modes of expression cause you to look at your own work differently, changing your perspective on form, subject matter, tone and structure. This is entirely healthy, as long as the appropriate boundaries are in place. This is learning.

The other night I discussed this very issue with Caroline on the smoking terrace of the Vic with a bottle of cheap wine between us, as is our custom for lengthy chats about poetry, Buffy and the universe. We decided that it might be fun to each write a blog post on the topic, then post them together, each linking the other. So here’s mine. Caroline’s (probably more erudite) view can be read here.

I’ve always been taught the philosophy of ‘share and share alike’. I’m not one to jealously guard my ideas against somebody in the same boat, as long as my ideas are respected. It’s a two-way street. We can all teach one another something, and it’s the best way we’ll evolve as writers. Help yourself to some inspiration, but make sure you put some back for everyone else.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 7:22 pm

    You’ve both really inspired me to try some simultaneous blogging. It’s a great idea! I hope you will join in my experiment.

    Mairi

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